The defining feature of the Republican presidential primaries was the constant Sturm und Drang over Mitt Romney’s ability to win Republican voters. Pundits claimed that Romney had a “ceiling” with conservatives in the party, and opponents like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum routinely assailed the front-runner as a candidate whose commitment to conservatism was short-lived and inauthentic—a human “Etch A Sketch,” in the words of Romney’s own campaign spokesperson.
But when Romney locked up the nomination after months of bitter fighting, the party promptly came together behind him. Santorum, Romney’s main competitor, dropped out of the race on April 10. One week later, polls showed that 90 percent of Republican voters supported Romney against Barack Obama—identical to the number of Democrats who said they backed the president.
What drove the quick embrace of the former Massachusetts governor? It wasn’t love; conservatives aren’t thrilled with Romney, even as they prepare to support him. But they aren’t objecting to a marriage of convenience. Grover Norquist, founder of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, explained Romney’s acceptability in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “We just need a president who can sign the legislation that the Republican House and Senate pass,” he said. “We don’t need someone to think. We need someone with enough digits on one hand to hold a pen.”
Romney’s appeal is that he can win a general election. The right has controlled the Republican Party for years, and all it needs is a titular leader to implement its policies. If conservatives could elect a corpse, they would, but because the Constitution requires a warm body, they’ll make do with Romney. What they want is a front man for their ideas, and throughout his campaign, Romney has been happy to oblige. His domestic-policy proposals are perfectly attuned to right-wing orthodoxy: “Repeal Obama-care.” “Repeal Dodd-Frank.” “Eliminate Title X family--planning programs benefiting groups like Planned Parenthood.” “Return federal programs to the states.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as pandering. Many political observers expect Romney to adjust his rhetoric for the general election. But the presumptive nominee has done nothing to moderate his message for the fall. In a speech to the National Rifle Association on April 13, Romney held on to the conservatism he espoused during the primaries. “Instead of expanding the government,” he declared, “I will shrink it. Instead of raising taxes, I will cut them. Instead of adding regulations, I will scale them back.”
Romney is running for president as a right-wing Republican with right-wing ideas, and it is absurd to think that he would suddenly revert to the Mitt who governed Massachusetts. Even if he wanted to, he would first have to contend with a conservative movement that sees itself as the dominant partner in this relationship. “If the Republicans take the Senate, I definitely think you’ll see Romney have to follow what the House and Senate are doing,” says Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, one of the largest organizations in the Tea Party orbit. “Our goal is to drive that, so that we have more conservatives in the Senate, and we’re setting the agenda.”
If conservatives expect to set the agenda—and if Romney, as president, wants to maintain their support—then he can’t govern from the center. Nor does he plan to.
Romney’s agenda mirrors that of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand acolyte and anti-tax crusader from Wisconsin who, over the past two years, has crafted the blueprint for Republican domestic policy. “As president,” Romney has said, “I look forward to working with Chairman Ryan and his House Republican colleagues to pass bold reforms that restore America’s promise.”
What do those reforms look like?
On the tax side, Romney promises a litany of tax reductions, beginning with a permanent extension of the George W. Bush tax cuts. Individual income-tax rates would go down, capital-gains taxes would diminish, the estate tax would vanish, and corporate taxes would drop to 25 percent (from the current level of 35 percent). He has vowed to phase out every tax policy related to both the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act.
“By reducing the tax on the next dollar of income earned by all taxpayers, we will encourage hard work, risk-taking, and productivity by allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn,” the former governor said in a February speech in Detroit. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Romney made a bolder claim: His tax plan could “create 2.5 million jobs in less than two years.”
The campaign has not provided evidence for either assertion, and past experience suggests that tax reductions are not good medicine for job growth. The Bush cuts, for example, were followed by the slowest job expansion since World War II. Although the economic situation is dramatically worse than it was when Bush took office, Romney intends to reduce taxes even more for high-income earners. You could plausibly say that Romney intends to grow the economy with the old-time magic of trickle-down economics.
He makes no attempt to square the circle on tax cuts and deficits. According to an analysis by the Urban Institute–Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, Romney’s plan would add tremendously to the deficit. Extending the Bush cuts would cost the federal government $480 billion per year; Romney’s additional “tax relief” would cost another $420 billion. Under a Romney presidency, the federal government would lose $9 trillion in revenue over the next decade in order to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
To make up for the lost revenue, Romney has said that he will eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction for higher-income earners as well as deductions for state and local taxes. At most, however, that will raise $31 billion, a minuscule sum by comparison.
Romney’s tax plan excels in one way: exacerbating income inequality. As measured by the Gini Index, a comprehensive and widely used measure of income inequality, the United States ranks near the worst of developed countries in terms of inequality. The wealthiest Americans have seen their incomes explode over the last decade, to the point where the top 1 percent of households earn close to a quarter of all income.
The federal tax code is directly related to the level of income inequality. A progressive tax code, which reduces the after-tax income of wealthy Americans by a greater share than that of their lower--income counterparts, bends inequality downward. Flatter taxes, by contrast, tend to maintain the pre-tax distribution of income.
Romney’s plan drastically flattens the tax code. It would decrease the top rate to 28 percent and yield more than 6 percent in additional after-tax income for the wealthiest Americans. At the same time, the burden for everyone else would go up, because Romney plans to end stimulus-related tax breaks for working and middle-class Americans. He consistently says that he won’t “apologize” for his wealth. What he will do, however, is keep wealth with the wealthy.
Like his tax proposals, Romney’s spending plan flows out of his broader diagnosis of the economy: High taxes reduce economic freedom, and high spending keeps the economy from flourishing. In his words, “This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is we’re struggling because our government is too big.”
The broad strokes of his spending plan (as well as Paul Ryan’s most recent budget) were inspired by “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” a pledge crafted by the Tea Party group Let Freedom Ring. The pledge, which Romney signed, asked candidates to reduce the budget, cap federal spending (Romney says he’ll limit it to 20 percent of gross domestic product, down from 23 percent), and pass a balanced-budget amendment.
This isn’t negotiable. House Republicans passed a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan last summer, and conservatives are counting on Romney to get it through Congress, even if it requires valuable political capital. “I expect him to champion ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance,’ and I expect him to drive it through Congress,” says Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring.
Since Romney’s tax proposal would cost billions of dollars in revenue, lawmakers would have to do a tremendous amount of slashing to meet his goals. In his speech to the American Society of News Editors on April 3, President Obama minced no words about what this budget would mean. “It is thinly veiled social Darwinism,” he said. Starting in 2014, Obama said, more than 200,000 children would be eliminated from Head Start. Two million mothers and children would be kicked out of programs that ensure them access to healthy food. National parks would close, regulators would be fired, and funding for medical research would end.
After making these remarks, Obama was accused of election-year fearmongering. But the truth is that the president might have understated the extent to which Romney has proposed a radical attack on the basic functions of government.
Romney wants to set defense spending at 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—slightly higher than it is already. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if lawmakers were to set defense spending at 4 percent and enact Romney’s tax reductions but not balance the budget, they would have to cut all non-defense programs—including Social Security and Medicare—by an average of 19.6 percent in 2016 in order to cap spending at 20 percent of GDP. Overall, under those parameters, government would shrink by $6.5 trillion over eight years.
This is the least Romney’s plan would do. As Obama warned, it would have a devastating effect on safety-net programs. The reductions to food stamps would throw millions out of the program. Disabled veterans would lose their payments, and government would have to gut benefits for the poor and disabled. Hundreds of thousands would be pushed to the furthest depths of poverty. If you include Romney’s promise to protect Social Security and Medicare—a nod to the Republican Party’s graying base—you would have no choice but to double the decreases to the non-defense discretionary budget, which is everything the government spends after Social Security, Medicare, and the military.
To meet all of Romney’s fiscal goals—and a balanced budget—policymakers would have to make the most draconian cuts in the nation’s history. Over eight years, they would have to slash $10 trillion from the non-defense discretionary budget, or a whopping 81 percent.
This would pay for Romney’s large tax cuts for the rich—with a little left over—but the cost to ordinary Americans would be catastrophic. Pell grants? Gone. Aid to needy families? Gone. Medicaid? Gone. Environmental protection? Gone. Food stamps? Gone. Unemployment insurance? Gone. Under Romney, the federal government would return to the skeletal state of the pre–New Deal era. What’s more, we could say goodbye to an economic recovery. The shock from these measures would cost the economy more than four million jobs through 2014. In describing this bloodbath, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote that “the ensuing increase in poverty and destitution would almost certainly surpass anything in our country’s recent history.” The effect on economic mobility would be just as disastrous. Already, upward mobility in the U.S. has fallen below European levels.
On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly attacked social programs as government “dependency,” promising instead to create an “opportunity society” with lower taxes and small government. But federal redistributive programs have been key in helping citizens get ahead. By supporting low-income families, providing children with health care and early education, rewarding the work of lower earners, and making college more affordable, the federal government provides a foundation for people to better themselves.
Paul Ryan has famously called for a “social safety net, not a hammock.” He has a kindred spirit in the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer. Romney’s plans would shred the safety net and leave most Americans in a world where mobility is a long shot and poverty a constant presence.
It’s not hard to see why many Americans associate Mitt Romney with moderation. As governor, he pioneered health-care reform, supported cap-and-trade climate legislation, accommodated Massachusetts’s liberal abortion laws, and stood by as the state legalized same-sex marriage. His centrist image was reinforced in this year’s primaries, with Newt Gingrich attacking him as a “Massachusetts moderate,” Rick Santorum equating him to Barack Obama, and Jon Huntsman—whose demeanor belied a strongly conservative record—describing him as a “well-oiled weather vane.”
Most pundits will grant that Romney is a conservative. But they maintain that, if elected, he’ll govern as a problem solver rather than an ideologue. It’s what he once was, and for them, it’s what he still is. Democratic cries of radicalism are just the usual pabulum of a presidential election. Obama “is building a case for re-election that rests almost exclusively on the evils of the opposition,” Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times.
It’s true that, under the right circumstances, Romney could revert to the pragmatism he’s eschewed while running for president. If Democrats control the Senate, as they did in the first years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Romney would have to accommodate their presence, lest he do nothing at all.
The real world could also intrude. If unemployment remains around 8 percent—as projected by the Obama administration—Romney might need to adopt fiscal stimulus in addition to his planned tax cuts. His campaign team, however, insists that wouldn’t be necessary. “The positive stimulative effects of permanent tax cuts are significant enough,” says Kevin Hassett, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a Romney economic adviser.
You might even count on a little partisan pragmatism from congressional Republicans. “Don’t assume that a Republican couldn’t get away with spending increases,” says budget analyst Stan Collender, a former staffer on both the House and Senate budget committees. “In much the same way that Republicans can increase the deficit in ways Democrats can’t, Romney coming in and saying we need to get unemployment down could easily [lead to] a stimulus package with spending increases that Republicans would never agree to with a Democratic president.” For evidence, look no further than the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, which was crafted by congressional Republicans, supported by GOP leaders (including Paul Ryan), and signed by President George W. Bush.
But the Republican Party is a different beast than it was four years ago. With the rise of the Tea Party and the transformative 2010 midterms, Republicans have become openly hostile to compromise and pragmatic problem solving. They believe in unalloyed ideology as a winning electoral strategy. Romney can try to persuade them to yield, but it’s hard to imagine that his efforts would be able to sway lawmakers who were willing to let the country default last summer just to prove a point.
Moreover, Mitt Romney has changed. The Massachusetts moderate disappeared six years ago, when he first began his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The Mitt Romney of today has been more than clear about his goals. He wants low taxes, smaller government, a weaker safety net, and a larger military. His rhetoric might change to meet the demands of the general election, but his policies will stay the same. Even if he wanted to edge toward the center, he’s hemmed in by right-wing activists who will demand results, and congressional Republicans who expect to take the lead in policymaking. “We’re not a cheerleading squad,” Louisiana Republican Jeff Landry told The New York Times. “We’re the conductor. We’re supposed to drive the train.”
These aren’t idle expectations. If Romney wins the White House, it’s a sure bet that Republicans will also win the Senate—Democrats are defending a disproportionately large number of seats this year—and maintain their majority in the House of Representatives. More important, Romney’s agenda is almost entirely fiscal: cuts to taxes, cuts to entitlements, and cuts to domestic programs. All of this can be passed through budget reconciliation, which makes it immune to a filibuster. Republicans could force through their ideas without a single Democratic vote.
This gets to the overarching flaw with the belief that Romney will govern from the center-right. Political pragmatism isn’t a stance in itself; it’s a means to particular goals. Obama’s pragmatism, for example, was exemplified in the Affordable Care Act, which traded giveaways to insurance companies in return for universal health insurance.
The modern Republican Party isn’t trying to build a fairer or more equitable society, and it doesn’t care for the interests of low- or middle-income Americans. To borrow from Paul Ryan, it stands for the “makers” against the “takers.” It aims to gut government and give the spoils to the rich. In a sense, it seeks to revive the age of Calvin Coolidge, when government was small, inequality high, and the economy an exclusive playground for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans. If Mitt Romney is elected, the GOP will have a president who shares that vision.
When Romney and Obama cast this election as a choice between two competing visions, they’re right. The 2012 campaign isn’t a case of overblown rhetoric and minor differences; the winner of this battle will either protect the future American welfare state or set it on a path to destruction. His years as governor notwithstanding, Romney has fought for the better part of a decade to lead this rightward shift. If elected, his pragmatism will serve those goals. To expect anything else is to believe a fantasy.